The Russian invasion of the Ukraine in February 2022 led to millions of people living in the Ukraine fleeing their homes, leaving behind everything they’ve ever known. Thousands of people, including children, have suffered injuries or have lost their lives while daily videos and photos of the brutalities these people have suffered have been portrayed in the media. The atrocities seem unimaginable, and the pictures themselves are also very traumatic in their own right. For the people of the Ukraine, living in constant fear, while simultaneously struggling to find a degree of security and safety, has taken a serious toll on their mental health.
Over the course of the first four parts of our series on “war and mental health”, we have explored a number of important issues pertaining to the topic, illustrating how far-reaching and devastating the impacts of war can be on the lives and mental health of people from across the world. We have looked at the cold, hard facts and figures regarding conflict situations, we have explored, in detail, the various mental health consequences of war, and we have gathered the views of mental health professionals and mental health care users on the topic. We’ve assessed the impacts of war on health systems, infrastructure, economies and political institutions. We’ve seen how war leaves a destructive legacy of “development in reverse”, and we have taken a detailed look at the harrowing effects of conflict-driven displacement and food as a weapon of war.
The social media war…
As we bring this series to its conclusion, we want to reflect on one last, highly unique aspect related to this particular conflict; an aspect that has brought this particular war closer to people from across the world than any other war had previously been done. And that is the role that social media has played. The Ukrainian war has been called “the social media war” because the events that have transpired there have not only been broadcast live through conventional news platforms, but also extensively via platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, at unprecedented rates. Violent images from the war have been spread widely, with some videos [tagged #UkraineWar] having been viewed 600 million times over the course of just a few days. The reality is that these audio and visual clips can be very triggering for anyone exposed to it, leading to serious psychological consequences.
The sad truth is that our world has always been plagues by conflicts. Given the instabilities in Iraq, civil unrests in Syria, various conflicts in other countries, along with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukrainian war has presented us with yet another traumatic event on an already-lengthy list of traumatic events, all of which may impact our mental health adversely. Yet when we look at trauma, we often assume that this only pertains to people directly affected by violent conflicts. However, Steve Sugden (MD), a colonel in the United States’ Army Reserves and psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute in Utah, tells us that while “The long-term effects of trauma are significant”, it is important to note that “Civilians, soldiers, and those consuming the war through social media can develop the typical psychological profile of trauma“. He also states that “Studies have shown that consumers of a war via television, social media, or other forms of media can be just as impacted as the actual individuals within the conflict”.
And this, dear readers, is why we have felt the need to talk so extensively about war and mental health. In July 2022, there were an estimated 4.7 billion social media users across the globe, which made up around 59% of the total global population. The numbers of social media users have continued to increase over the preceding 12 months, with 227 million new people joining social media platforms since July 2021. This equates to an annual growth in social media use of 5.1%, which in turn equates to approximately 7 new users becoming active every second of every day. The role of social media in spreading information about the war is however only one of many already-known negative effects of social media, with studies showing how social media may have adverse impacts on relationships, productivity at work, educational settings, and specifically also on mental health. However, social media has become such a big part of our lives that it has become difficult for people to simply look away.
The figures above are staggering, and when one takes into consideration the trauma that social media users may be exposing themselves to because of images of the Ukrainian conflict, a very concerning picture starts to emerge. Children, young people and people of all ages are all potentially being exposed to images and videos that may lead directly to trauma on a daily basis, meaning that problems related to mental health – as a knock-on effect of the war ‘trending’ on social media – may just soar over the coming years.
But why and how do people get exposed? It has been found that from a clinical perspective, people turn to electronic media as sources of information during times of crises. This is due to the fact that, for many, social media has become a coping mechanism to assist with stress or merely just as a distraction. When watching images or videos from the Ukrainian war on a screen, people are enabled to empathise with persons who are affected, which may inform, educate and even inspire people to want to help. However, as we’ve seen, this increase in screen time and an “over-saturation of traumatic content” can cost the person dearly in terms of their mental health. Sugden draws an interesting parallel between the Ukrainian war and the events of 9/11, as the latter was the first ever televised ‘disaster’. Studies that followed this found that people who had watched the event on TV had been just as likely, or even more, to develop trauma-like symptoms that people residing in New York during the event.
So what can we do to protect ourselves?
There is clearly a need to protect ourselves from over-exposure to information about the Ukrainian war, which is flooding social media platforms. The following are some suggested strategies for helping to minimise the mental health risks related to this, bearing in mind that simply turning off devices or leaving social media platforms to limit the amount of content being viewed related to the war is not always easy or practical for many people:
- Avoid looking at content before you go to sleep at night or when you wake up – this is important because viewing distressing images or videos may cause unnecessary stress and anxiety, which might either keep you awake during the night or affect you throughout the day
- Make sure the content you are viewing and/or sharing is accurate and not misleading or false
- Take stock of your feelings – for example, if you start feeling anxious, turn of your device and step away from the content
- Avoid what is referred to as “doomscrolling” [defined as the act of “mindlessly scrolling through negative news articles, social media posts, or other content-sharing platforms”]. Doomscrolling involves a person reading negative story after negative story, with one Canadian study referring to the phenomenon as “social media panic”. People are encouraged to instead focus on content that does not lead to them feeling stressed
- Instead of watching events unfold on social media, rather stay engaged through, for example, supporting activities related to the Ukrainian war that could boost your mental health, for example donating to relief efforts or organising local events to assist families who may have ties to the Ukraine
- Use this time to assess your mental well-being, take a break from social media and seek out assistance you may require
We know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the realities of war are horrendous – soldiers and civilians are all affected negatively, both psychologically and physically. Malnutrition, illness, injury, death, sexual violence and disability are all consequences of war, while Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression are all some of the emotional effects. The terror associated with war disrupts people’s lives and tears families and relationships apart, leaving individuals and communities in utter distress.
Going back to the opening paragraphs of our war and mental health series, where I recalled a conversation I had with David, a petrol attendant, about how the war in the Ukraine was causing him anxiety, I am left to wonder what role social media may have played in David’s life at that time. Did he, as so many others, view traumatising images or videos on social media? Did he start feeling the gnawing feelings of stress and anxiety related to the Ukrainian war, despite being thousands of kilometres away, simply because of being a social media user? Did he learn about the true horrors of war while lying in bed late at night, perhaps doomscrolling through social media? Did he see people being brutalised, buildings laid to waste and lives torn apart from behind his cell phone’s screen? And how many other people in South Africa were currently grappling with the same fears, anxieties and even trauma because of over-exposure to the events on social media?
Here in South Africa, we remain fortunate enough to be spared some of the direct effects of the Ukrainian war, for example the immense violence associated with it. However, we are feeling some of the indirect effects through, for example, the increased prices of food. But we now also know that we are perhaps even more at risk of suffering the consequences of the war than what we may have initially thought, because of so many of us being highly active users of social media. And while we may not be able to directly address many of the effects of the war, we are able to keep ourselves, our children, family and friends safer through encouraging a more responsible use of social media. Let’s stay informed, let’s help where we can, let’s look after each other, and let’s not immerse ourselves in content to the extent that it damages our mental health. Because war is hell. Whether viewed from the confines of a building left in ruins, or from the comfort of your bed.
By Leon de Beer, Deputy Director – SA Federation for Mental Health